The Emoticon Generation
My turn has finally come around in The Emoticon Generation Blog Tour. I highly recommend reading the other posts in this series, both for the varied perspectives other reviewers bring to the book, and because I’m going to skip over many of the basics in this post. Others have been kind enough to summarize the stories, talk a little about the author, and trade comments about who liked what, so I’m going to jump right into the bits that interest me the most and poke around those topics for awhile.
The stories in this collection are unified by the near future theme. In some cases, they are only tangentially science fiction, for two reasons. First, the stories are always character focused. This is not Analog-style Hard SF, where competent white men solve engineering problems, it is SF where some science fictional idea kicks off a story that is almost entirely about the people involved. “Science” generally takes a back seat to “fiction.” Second, whatever concept lies at the root of the story feels as though it could be hitting the real world science news tomorrow. Or yesterday. In fact, Hasson is convincing enough in some of the stories that I would not be surprised to find out that some government somewhere is actually using the technology he describes. I know I’m not alone in thinking that “Ping!” might be a real word; I felt obligated to confirm that the entirety of the first story, “Generation E,” is in fact made up. I wasn’t sure.
Four of the seven stories take on one particular cutting edge endeavor that sits at the center of a large portion of SF discourse: digitizing people. Plenty of books take downloaded personalities as a given; it’s not a new idea, though I get the feeling that it has grown more ubiquitous in recent years. Some authors use their books as proxies arguing one aspect or another of the issue (Karl Schroeder, for example, or Greg Egan), while others, like noted internet puppy Charlie Stross, advocate in real life. Hasson doesn’t take a side in the debate, instead choosing to examine the researchers, early adopters, and guinea pigs that would make such a thing possible. He seems much less interested in the hows of the thing, or the effect it would have on us some hundreds of years down the line. Instead, Hasson teases out the ethical questions that will face us tomorrow, or next year, or next decade, if it turns out we can scan our brains into computers.
Two of the stories, “Hatchling” and “Eternity Wasted,” deal specifically with, shall we say, digital personhood. If these AIs are sentient, be they created or copied, what rights do they have? Is it torture if the intelligence is just sitting in a computer somewhere? Is it murder to turn them off? Can we put these personalities to use for science? Considering the pitched battles being waged (in the US at least) over the rights of corporations and fetuses, where will people draw the line with AI? I can’t help but wonder if Kansas-based churches will picket and protest when digital people are being used as experimental subjects, or if they will just mutter about “‘dem newfangled eee-lectronics” and go about their business. What about the tech people that rise to the defense of digital rights and persecuted hackers? How will they feel about the mathematician locked away in his integrated circuit cell? Hasson has no answers, nor does he even directly ask the questions. One can sense his unease with the uses he seems to expect us to put these AIs to, however. I wonder if he read Tony Daniels’ Metaplanetary while writing? (Daniels has AIs stand in for Jews in his WWII-in-space epic.)
Two more, “All of Me” and “Her Destiny” play with even more prosaic questions. The first is pretty amusing in its way, wondering what might happen when someone’s digital copy is better than the real thing. I probably shouldn’t have been laughing at this story, but I was. (Sign of distasteful personality traits in the reviewer?) The second is a bit more fantastic, using digitized consciousness to play with ideas about fate and destiny. It walks a fine line between heartstring-tugging and mind-bending. Neither of these dig into the thorny ethical issues of uploaded intelligence, instead playing with what if questions that drift more into thought provoking entertainment.
The remaining stories maintain the similar balance of sympathetic characters and Keanu Reeves-esque “Woah” inducing concepts, but without the thematic unity of the above four. “Freedom is Only a Step Away” kept me thinking, all the moreso because I have been involved in teaching and am currently worried about my own children’s education. Hasson makes implications about the way our current society shackles us and cuts us off from our full potential, but hedges away from the anarchic premise of the story. I suspect he’s enjoying tweaking everyone, without actually making policy recommendations. “Generation E” is easily the most fun of the stories, again no doubt because my oldest child is just discovering email. As a fellow blogger said during our conversation about this, “You say your daughter is just writing gibberish, but do you really know??” Hmmm.
So these are my reactions to the stories. The book is fairly short, but there is lots to chew on. Hasson has said in other interviews that his number one goal is to blow people’s minds; I’d say he succeeds this time. Now I’m just waiting for one or another science blog to break the news that half of Hasson’s inventions are actually being put to use by Sony, the Russian government, or a start-up in Silicon Valley.